RIMBO, SWEDEN — Following three years of one of the bloodiest battles of the 21st century, the Saudi assault on Yemen’s key port city of Hodeida may be nearing its end. The Saudi-led coalition and Ansar Allah, the political wing of the Houthi resistance movement, have agreed to a ceasefire in Hodeida and in the Taiz Province of northwestern Yemen, the scene of some of the most intense battles in the war, to facilitate the delivery of aid.
At a press conference concluding a week of peace talks in Sweden, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that the warring parties agreed on a ceasefire in Hodeida, describing the deal as an important first step toward future talks to end the conflict:
We have reached an agreement on Hodeida port and city, which will see a mutual redeployment of forces from the port and the city and the establishment of a governorate-wide ceasefire.
The UN will play a leading role in the port and this will facilitate the humanitarian access and the flow of goods to the civilian population.»
The agreement essentially places the strategic port city under the military control of the UN; and, while Houthi military forces will withdraw from Hodeida city and the port, their political wing, Ansar Allah, will retain political control of the city.
Agreements on the reopening of the Sana’a International Airport, a withdrawal of Houthi forces in Sana’a, the paying of government staff salaries, and the neutralization of the Central Bank — needed to spare the population from further hunger — have yet to be reached.
As a confidence-building measure, the two sides also agreed to a mass prisoner exchange of over 15,000 prisoners and detainees, with each side submitting its own list to the UN for the swap. The Saudi-led coalition reportedly submitted the names of some 8,000 detainees, including troops from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as fighter that are said to include members of al Qaeda and ISIS; while Houthis submitted the names of some 7,000 coalition prisoners, which included political opponents of the coalition, local civilian activists, and women.
Guterres said that armed forces of both parties would withdraw from Hodeida and added that control will be handed over to local forces under the supervision of the UN.
The UN chief confirmed that another round of talks is planned for the end of January to discuss a political framework for ending the conflict that has triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which has brought 14 million Yemenis to the brink of starvation.
Mohammed Abdul-Salam — the head of Ansar Allah’s delegation to the peace talks, which took place in the rural Swedish village of Rimbo — said at a press conference that the Saudi coalition failed to agree on suspending military operations on all fronts in the war, as well as the reopening of the Sana’a International Airport and resumption of salary payments to government employees.
Saudi coalition representatives proposed that the coalition-controlled city of Aden be home to the country’s main international airport, relegating the Sana’a International Airport, located in Yemen’s capital city, to local use.
Abdul-Salam said that Ansar Allah offered to have Yemeni planes inspected in Jordan and Egypt as Saudi coalition-controlled Aden is considered unsafe for opponents of the coalition.
A shaft of light
Yemeni analysts regard the Rimbo talks as having progressed better than anticipated. The International Crisis Group told AFP, “Sweden talks have achieved more than anyone expected,» adding, “we have heard a different tone from the government of Yemen in these talks, and U.S. pressure has clearly focused minds in the Gulf.»
The peace talks in Sweden are the first successful negotiation between Yemen’s warring factions. Numerous prior negotiations between Yemen’s Ansar Allah and the Saudi coalition — backed by the United States and other Western powers – have failed. Efforts to launch peace talks in Switzerland earlier this year failed spectacularly after the Saudi-led coalition refused to allow the evacuation of wounded Houthi personnel for treatment abroad. Previous talks also broke down in 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to yield a deal.
Top Photo | Head of Houthi delegation Mohammed Abdul-Salam (R) and Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yaman (2 L) shake hands next to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom (L), during the Yemen peace talks closing press conference at the Johannesberg castle in Rimbo, near Stockholm December 13, 2018. Pontus Lundahl | Reuters
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.